I received the dubious honor of being called to jury duty on Monday. Fortunately, I did not end up on a jury, but I did get a chance to spend my lunch break poking around the National Gallery of Art. I took in several exhibits that are definitely worth your time.
First, I went specifically to see Masterpieces in Miniature: Italian Manuscript Illumination from the J. Paul Getty Museum (through January 2, 2006). It's not very big, just two rooms of gorgeous pages, sometimes whole codices, chosen for their illuminations and on loan from the Getty. The illuminations are gorgeous, but there are also examples of music notation in some of the works shown. While the illuminations selected are all quite beautiful, I was not impressed with the exhibit materials (the brochure was written by Kurt Barstow and Thomas Kren, both in the museum's Department of Manuscripts). There are Latin mistakes ("Aspiciens alonge"), and actually very little attempt to transcribe and translate the Latin texts that are shown. This rather uninterdisciplinary approach is most unfortunate, considering that the codices shown are the result of a concerted effort by musicians, text scribes, and artists. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The National Gallery Vocal Arts Ensemble has made recordings of some of the pieces in these documents, two of which you can hear in the exhibit space or online: Resurrexi and Aspiciens a longe. A video in the exhibit's third room explains the process of codex planning and execution. The NGA's free Sunday concert on November 6, by the NGA Vocal Arts Ensemble, will feature transcriptions from the manuscripts on display, as well as later polyphony based on these chants.
Verrocchio in Washington (March 20, 2004)
Digitizing the National Libraries (August 31, 2004)
Iranian Manuscript Painting in Tehran (June 8, 2005)
First, there is Nanni di Banco's set of the Quattro Santi Coronati (Four Crowned Martyrs), from 1409 to 1417, carved from three large blocks of marble for the Maestri di Pietri e di Legname (guild of stonemasons and woodcarvers). Since they are removed from their deep niche, you can see them up close, including some of their back where they were attached to the wall. Far more impressive in terms of size, is Lorenzo Ghiberti's Saint Matthew, cast in bronze in the early 1420s for the Cambio (the bankers' guild). Ghiberti helped to revive the lost art of monumental bronze casting, but the results are usually less poetic than his greater contemporaries. This Saint Matthew is stunningly tall and vast in scope (8'10", fulfilling the guild's wish to have their patron outsize that of their rival guild, the Calimala), and recent restoration has made the touches of silver (in the letters of the saint's gospel book and the corneas of his eyes) visible again. However, by comparison to other sculptures, I find this Matthew a little clunky, especially in the weighty folds around the evangelist's midsection, which have volume and mass not appropriate to cloth.
For me, the best of the three is the last, the Christ and Saint Thomas (Incredulity of Saint Thomas) cast by Andrea del Verrocchio about fifty years after Ghiberti's statue. A half-century of advances in bronze casting definitely shows, and it is much advanced over his own more famous David, which I wrote about when it came to Washington in 2004. Here the folds of the robes, the detail of the bodies, and even the wounds in Christ's hands and side are much more lifelike, and even after staring at the statue for several minutes it was still hard to believe the medium was bronze. Verrocchio's uses of the niche background, reproduced in wood at the National Gallery, is also dramatic: Christ is placed within the niche on a small dais, filling it quite traditionally (as the "art"), while Thomas is placed outside the niche (as the "viewer," as if he climbed up to the ledge to see the sculpture), reaching out to touch the spear wound. Here, also, the curators have done a much better job of filling in the public about the Latin inscriptions, often as if woven into the hem of the figures' garments, and making note of the guild associations and liturgical feast day of each patron saint.
Finally, I took in the little Winslow Homer exhibit, which will show through February 20. It's not much, fifty works, and only a few of those are painting. However, although I had no need to be convinced of the interest in Homer's work, I was struck by the (as usual) excellent remarks of Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker (the August 8 issue). In particular, he singled out the relatively late Homer painting in the NGA's collection, Right and Left (1909), in which one sees the following:
two foreground ducks taking off from turbulent waters are hit by a distant hunter’s double-barrelled buckshot; one has flipped upside down, and the other is transfixed with neck straining and wings spread, startled by death. The birds are black-and-white, the water several shades of gray with a splash of light blue. A tiny lick of red-orange locates the hunter’s gun, and a duck’s staring eye has a yellow iris. A ragged cream-colored band along the top of the painting suggests dawn. The picture’s muted color harmonies are worthy of Whistler, and the boldly and tenderly worked paint surface evokes Manet. A career that began with a dispassionate shooter draws to an end with unresentful shot ducks. Homer’s America, always energetic, is never so calm as when it is violent, in extreme instances of the one moral quality that overmastered, for him, all others: unsimple truth.This time seeing the painting, I forced myself to stand there for a long while, staring at each of the details Schjeldahl mentioned in that review. I always appreciate being led to see a familiar work in a new light.